Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park. Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station. That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.
The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens. When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness. At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats. The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.
Our driver was great. He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since. He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers. For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc. We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.
One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out. That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.
The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.
The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes. This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park. Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths. Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.
The next sighting was a ptarmigan. The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration. Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken. One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken. The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.
Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali. Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds. Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other. We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs. Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.
Next up were a herd of Dall sheep. Dall sheep are quite common in Denali. They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.
Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour. The rugged landscape was breathtaking. One of the high points was Polychrome Pass. Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour. The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.
Caribou are quite common in Denali. We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape. This was the best I could do with the Caribou.
We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station. The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points. From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.
In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou. But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road. After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”
All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent. If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.